THE LAST HARD MAN IN TRIBECA

 

My turn toward criminality began with a bottle of Garnacha at a tapas bar in Chelsea.  Dave and I used to get together at places like that at least once a month, but now that we’ve been out of school for two decades, we’re lucky if we manage it five times a year.

“You know what movie I watched the other night?” he asked after the waiter had placed a steaming platter of chorizo and potatoes between us.

“Which one?”

Dirty Harry!  When’s the last time you saw that shit?”

I took a sip of my wine and shrugged.  “I don’t know, man.  Years.”

“You remember where it took place?”

“San Francisco?”

“San Francisco!” he echoed, giggling.  “Fuckin’ hilarious, right?”  I nodded and smiled, and he went on.  “I mean . . . Detroit, maybe . . . but the idea of San Francisco being so fucking menacing that Eastwood needed the Most Powerful Handgun in the World to police it . . . I was just out there, man.  It might be the least intimidating bunch of people I’ve ever seen.”
I chuckled.  “Yeah, but shit was different in the seventies.  People were scared.”

Dave stabbed a piece of sausage and popped it into his mouth.  “Of course they were.  They sat around eating Quaaludes and listening to Pink Floyd all day.  No wonder everyone was paranoid.”

I reached for my wine again.  “You can’t put it all down to paranoia.  I mean, cities were tougher back then.”  I paused to swirl the inky liquid around the bottom of my glass before adding, “Before we priced all the hoodlums out.”

The waiter returned with a fourteen-dollar slice of Serrano ham.  After he walked away, Dave asked, “Don’t you miss the old city sometimes?”

There was only one proper answer to that question.  Anyone who wanted to keep up any pretense of being a Real New Yorker had to profess an affinity for the bad old days.  Admitting that you liked the sanitized version of Times Square would have been like saying you preferred chain-restaurant pasta to the fresh stuff they served up at your local trattoria.  No matter how much you liked those breadsticks, it just wasn’t something you told another grown-up.

I delivered the standard response, shaking my head as I muttered, “Fuckin’ Giuliani . . .”

Dave waved his hand in the general direction of the Hudson River.  “People out there still think that this is a dangerous place.  Every time I go home for Christmas, I have to explain to my aunt that I’m not living on the set of Taxi Driver.”
“Be careful what you wish for, man.  Not sure that guys like us coulda handled the mean streets . . .”

He laughed.  “You’re right about that.  It just seems like we’ve lost something.”

“Uh huh,” I mumbled as I grabbed the bottle and refilled my glass.

***

Dave had stopped smoking years ago, but after our meal he stood outside and shivered with me while I tried to light up.  Turning my back against the howling wind, I cupped my hands around my cigarette and fiddled with my lighter until it yielded a flame durable enough to ignite the tobacco.  “It’s fucking freezing out here,” I announced as a cloud of smoke dissipated into the air around me.

Dave pursed his lips and shook his head.  “This is what I’m talking about.  Remember when they used to let you enjoy your cigarette at the table after dinner, like a fucking civilized person?”

I shrugged.  “Vox populi, vox Dei, my man.  Smoking’s not cool anymore.”  After I took another drag, I added, “Even you quit, right?”

“I quit because I thought I was having a heart attack every time I felt a twinge anywhere above my waist.  But I never said that smoking wasn’t cool.”

“Well,” I replied, “I’m afraid we’re in the minority on that one.”

My friend ignored me and kept on rolling.  “When my kids watch Casablanca, the first thing they’re gonna ask me is why Rick was allowed to smoke inside his café.  Can you imagine Bogart pacing the sidewalk in his white dinner jacket, or Sinatra freezing his balls off on East 60th Street because they made him stand outside the Copacabana every time he wanted a cigarette?”

“Different world now, and not just here.  London, Paris . . . same thing.”

“At least they let you take your pint outside with you in London.  We’re lucky they still serve beer here.”  After a beat, he went on.  “The other day, Billy asked me if the city was ever gonna legalize weed, and I laughed in his face.  No porn, no cigarettes, no Big Gulps . . . Pretty soon they’re gonna have us in the park every morning doing calisthenics.”

I laughed and flicked my cigarette butt toward the curb.  “You headed toward the train?” I asked.

“Fuck that.  I can’t feel my face.  I’m taking a cab.”  He moved to the edge of the sidewalk and raised his arm.  When a taxi pulled up next to him, I gave him a hug and started walking toward the subway.

***

As I wandered toward 14th Street, I remembered going to Rangers games in the early eighties with my dad.  We would drive in from New Jersey and park in the garage at the Port Authority, and then walk down Eighth Avenue to the Garden.

That was an eye-opening journey for an eight-year old boy.  We strolled past scam artists dealing Three-card Monte beneath marquees trumpeting pictures with titles like On Golden Blonde, and doors that promised LIVE NUDE GIRLS to anyone brave enough to open them.  I wasn’t old enough to appreciate that the women prowling the sidewalks in impossibly short skirts might have been real-life hookers, or that the men loitering on the corners might have been their pimps, but the mere fact that they were a part of that scene left me terrified and fascinated by them in equal measure.

Whatever unease I felt was amplified by the little pearls of wisdom that my father used to drop as we went along.  He never seemed afraid of our surroundings, but the advice that he would occasionally dispense seemed calculated to remind me that we were in a sketchy place.  In keeping with his taciturn nature, his teachings were always presented without elaboration.  Don’t flash money around.  Carry your wallet in your front pocket.  Avoid card games on the street.

If I talked to a shrink, I wonder if he’d say that that the titillating vignettes through which I’d passed as a child had somehow played a role in my adult decision to make the city my home.  After going to school in places that were considerably less brightly lit, I confess that I came to New York in search of the buzz, the energy that I’d only ever felt in Manhattan.  Mostly, though, I came because my friends did, too.  There was money to be made and food to be eaten and music and art and culture and all the other shit that they advertise to the tourists.  I’m not sure that my juvenile fascination with the illicit cut one way or the other.

The stairs down to the train station were caked in slush and mud, and the handrail was coated in ice.  A stream of foul liquid dripped onto the top of my head as I gingerly made my descent, but I was afraid to move any faster lest I wipe out altogether.  When I got to the bottom, I looked down and saw that my pant legs were spattered with wintery sludge.  I made a mental note to visit the dry cleaner the next day.

I paused for a moment to clean my glasses with a handkerchief.  That’s when I noticed the heavily intoxicated man swaying in front of the nearest Metro Card dispenser.  His chin was pressed against his chest and his eyes clenched into narrow slits as he struggled to fish his wallet out of his pocket.  He squinted at the touch screen, but it was as if he’d forgotten what he’d come for.  All he could do was cradle his head in his hands and lean against the machine.

I stepped up behind him and called, “Hey, buddy.”  When he didn’t react, I reached out and tapped him on the shoulder.  “Buddy,” I repeated.  “Are you OK?”

The picture got uglier when he turned around.  His tie was askew, and the right lapel of his grey cashmere overcoat was streaked with vomit.   Droplets of sweat dotted his forehead, despite the station not being any warmer than the streets above, and the scent of booze was pungent enough to counsel against striking a match.  “I’m fine,” he mumbled.  “Just need to get home.”

My first reaction was one of sympathy.  Fifteen years ago, he might have been me.  Hell, I couldn’t guarantee that I wouldn’t be him after my next client dinner.  Still, as I stood and watched him struggle to keep the drool in his mouth as his head bobbed from side to side, I could feel my compassion being diluted by contempt.   I patted myself on the back for even taking the time to check on him.  A hundred other people had marched straight to their trains without giving him a second glance.  He’d said that he was fine, so I considered my duty done.

But I didn’t leave right away.  I just stared at him while he did his best not to fall over, and I began to notice things that I hadn’t at first.  He was holding his wallet open just above his belt buckle, and I could see three or four twenty-dollar bills sticking out.  Over his shoulder, I saw a new-model smart phone sitting on the Metro Card machine’s keypad.  His wristwatch was a sliver-toned Montblanc.

It would have been so easy.  I could have yanked that billfold out of his hands, peeled that watch off his wrist and knocked him down in a heap before snatching his phone on my way to the stairs.  I would have been two blocks away by the time he managed to get his feet back underneath him.

“Argghh,” he moaned as he flopped toward the wall, snapping me out of my reverie.  I put my hand on his shoulder.   “Hey man,” I said as a pointed toward the machine.  “Don’t forget your phone.”

“Thanks,” he panted.

I turned toward the turnstile.  “Good luck,” I said as I walked away.

***

As I wandered toward 14th Street, I remembered going to Rangers games in the early eighties with my dad.  We would drive in from New Jersey and park in the garage at the Port Authority, and then walk down Eighth Avenue to the Garden.

That was an eye-opening journey for an eight-year old boy.  We strolled past scam artists dealing Three-card Monte beneath marquees trumpeting pictures with titles like On Golden Blonde, and doors that promised LIVE NUDE GIRLS to anyone brave enough to open them.  I wasn’t old enough to appreciate that the women prowling the sidewalks in impossibly short skirts might have been real-life hookers, or that the men loitering on the corners might have been their pimps, but the mere fact that they were a part of that scene left me terrified and fascinated by them in equal measure.

Whatever unease I felt was amplified by the little pearls of wisdom that my father used to drop as we went along.  He never seemed afraid of our surroundings, but the advice that he would occasionally dispense seemed calculated to remind me that we were in a sketchy place.  In keeping with his taciturn nature, his teachings were always presented without elaboration.  Don’t flash money around.  Carry your wallet in your front pocket.  Avoid card games on the street.

If I talked to a shrink, I wonder if he’d say that that the titillating vignettes through which I’d passed as a child had somehow played a role in my adult decision to make the city my home.  After going to school in places that were considerably less brightly lit, I confess that I came to New York in search of the buzz, the energy that I’d only ever felt in Manhattan.  Mostly, though, I came because my friends did, too.  There was money to be made and food to be eaten and music and art and culture and all the other shit that they advertise to the tourists.  I’m not sure that my juvenile fascination with the illicit cut one way or the other.

The stairs down to the train station were caked in slush and mud, and the handrail was coated in ice.  A stream of foul liquid dripped onto the top of my head as I gingerly made my descent, but I was afraid to move any faster lest I wipe out altogether.  When I got to the bottom, I looked down and saw that my pant legs were spattered with wintery sludge.  I made a mental note to visit the dry cleaner the next day.

I paused for a moment to clean my glasses with a handkerchief.  That’s when I noticed the heavily intoxicated man swaying in front of the nearest Metro Card dispenser.  His chin was pressed against his chest and his eyes clenched into narrow slits as he struggled to fish his wallet out of his pocket.  He squinted at the touch screen, but it was as if he’d forgotten what he’d come for.  All he could do was cradle his head in his hands and lean against the machine.

I stepped up behind him and called, “Hey, buddy.”  When he didn’t react, I reached out and tapped him on the shoulder.  “Buddy,” I repeated.  “Are you OK?”

The picture got uglier when he turned around.  His tie was askew, and the right lapel of his grey cashmere overcoat was streaked with vomit.   Droplets of sweat dotted his forehead, despite the station not being any warmer than the streets above, and the scent of booze was pungent enough to counsel against striking a match.  “I’m fine,” he mumbled.  “Just need to get home.”

My first reaction was one of sympathy.  Fifteen years ago, he might have been me.  Hell, I couldn’t guarantee that I wouldn’t be him after my next client dinner.  Still, as I stood and watched him struggle to keep the drool in his mouth as his head bobbed from side to side, I could feel my compassion being diluted by contempt.   I patted myself on the back for even taking the time to check on him.  A hundred other people had marched straight to their trains without giving him a second glance.  He’d said that he was fine, so I considered my duty done.

But I didn’t leave right away.  I just stared at him while he did his best not to fall over, and I began to notice things that I hadn’t at first.  He was holding his wallet open just above his belt buckle, and I could see three or four twenty-dollar bills sticking out.  Over his shoulder, I saw a new-model smart phone sitting on the Metro Card machine’s keypad.  His wristwatch was a sliver-toned Montblanc.

It would have been so easy.  I could have yanked that billfold out of his hands, peeled that watch off his wrist and knocked him down in a heap before snatching his phone on my way to the stairs.  I would have been two blocks away by the time he managed to get his feet back underneath him.

“Argghh,” he moaned as he flopped toward the wall, snapping me out of my reverie.  I put my hand on his shoulder.   “Hey man,” I said as a pointed toward the machine.  “Don’t forget your phone.”

“Thanks,” he panted.

I turned toward the turnstile.  “Good luck,” I said as I walked away.

***

My sense is that a lot of New Yorkers would concur with Dave’s assertion that the city had lost something over the years.  I’m less confident that most of them could articulate what it was, exactly, that they felt like they were missing.  I don’t imagine that many of them would seriously advocate for restocking the streets with unchecked petty criminals and indiscreet sex workers.

Or maybe they would.  Every city-dweller wants to come off as street-smart, but that only has value insofar as the streets present obstacles which require an insider’s intelligence to navigate.  If a schmuck off the bus from Iowa can handle Hell’s Kitchen as well as the natives, then whatever savior faire we’ve accumulated can’t be worth all that much.  We need tourists to lose rigged card games so we can congratulate ourselves for knowing better than to play.  When our relatives from Kalamazoo tell us that we must be exceptional people because we’ve made it in New York, we want it to be true.

We cling to the notion that we’re too interesting for the suburbs; that we need to be in a place that has a little edge to it, even as our very presence dulls that edge right out of existence.  We crave that life-affirming shot of adrenaline that the occasional encounter with the unsavory can provide.  Without it, we’re just assholes cramming our families into nine-hundred square foot shoeboxes because we like to eat out sometimes. 

I’m not sure if any of that really explains why a guy like me, who’d never stolen a thing in his life, had to stifle the urge to roll a pathetic drunk before getting on the 1 train.  Or why I couldn’t stop thinking about it in the days that followed, to the point that I found myself eyeballing my fellow commuters and imagining what I might have been able to pull out of their pockets had I been so inclined.

I had a regular paycheck, a decent apartment and a beautiful family to share them with.  I wasn’t rich by local standards, but I certainly wasn’t desperate.  The idea of assaulting a woman, or an old person, disgusted me.  But there was something about the guys around my age.  The idea that they deserved to lose their stuff if they proved incapable of protecting it had a ring of Darwinian truth to it. 

Over the next two weeks, I found myself lingering outside the Franklin Street subway station on my way home from work, watching all the white-shoe lawyers and their hedge-fund clients carelessly shuffling toward their TriBeCa lofts.  To a man, they seemed unconcerned with the idea that someone might try to rip them off, as if a relatively crime-free decade had eradicated the collective memory of the perils that had been part and parcel of urban living since the beginning of time.  For whatever reason, I became increasingly convinced that someone needed to remind them.

***

I don’t know why I picked the guy that I finally went after.  He seemed indistinguishable from the dozen others that had walked up the stairs right before him.  His arrival just happened to coincide with the moment that I found my resolve.

I stayed about twenty feet behind him as he took a left onto North Moore Street, taking care not to miss the light when we crossed Varick.  Once we reached the other side, I picked up my pace.  By the time we got two-thirds of the way to Hudson Street, I was only about five feet off his hip.  My mark seemed oblivious, his eyes glued to his Blackberry.  I waited until we’d passed the next loading dock and shot a quick glance over my shoulder.  No one seemed to be paying either of us any mind.

I took a deep breath, lowered my shoulder and drove it into the middle of his back.  My high school football coach would have been proud of the way that I wrapped both arms around my target and used my legs to drive him right into the brick wall.  As soon as we smacked against it, I released his torso and planted my left forearm between his shoulder blades, pinning him in place.

“What the fuck?” he screamed.

 “Gimme your fuckin’ wallet,” I demanded, in the most menacing tone that I could muster.

“My phone!  What the fuck’s wrong with you?”

I looked down and saw the Blackberry bobbing in a puddle of filth.  I nearly forgot myself and apologized, but instead I just ground his cheek into the wall and repeated my request that he hand over his wallet.

The only thing he offered up was an expletive-laced complaint about how I’d scratched his face.  My heart was pounding through my jacket, and I struggled to take a deep breath.  I glanced up and down the street.  No one seemed concerned with our little ruckus, but given my man’s demonstrated penchant for screaming the word “fuck” at the top of his lungs, it seemed only a matter of time before our fellow citizens took notice.

As if on cue, he started bellowing.  “Police!  Help!  Someone call the police!

I dug my elbow into his spine.  “Shut the fuck up!”

He ignored me.  Two men had turned the corner at Varick Street and were headed toward us.  It was time to go.  I lifted the back of his overcoat with my right hand, intending to yank the wallet out of his back pocket myself before I took off.  Unfortunately, his billfold was fat and his pants were tight, and I couldn’t quite pull it free.  Absent-mindedly, I lowered my left arm so that I could work with both hands.

No longer pinned against the bricks, my victim spun around and unleashed a wild right hook, which I never saw coming. It caught me flush on my cheekbone.  I staggered backward, clutching my face, bright streaks of color shooting across my eyes.  “Goddamit!”  I yelled.

It was the first time that anyone had punched me in earnest since elementary school.  As soon as I gathered myself, I charged headfirst at my assailant, landing us both flat on the sidewalk.  We rolled around in the muddy remnants of the snow that had fallen two days earlier, cursing and pawing at each other, but I don’t think that either of us landed any more clean blows.  His shots toward my ribs were absorbed by my heavy down coat, and his lack of reaction to my corresponding efforts suggested that he’d gotten the same benefit from his own outerwear. 

It seemed like only a few seconds passed before I felt a pair of hands on my shoulders and heard what sounded like the Brooklyn-accented voice of God, insisting that I calm down.  When I failed to comply, those hands tightened their grip and yanked me all the way to my feet.
 
Take it easy!” I screamed as my momentum sent me stumbling into the wall.  I turned to continue my outburst, but the sight of two uniformed police officers glaring at me made me think better of it.  I kept my mouth shut and watched them peel my opponent off the ground, leaving the four of us standing in an awkward, silent square.  The cop on my left, a tall black man with a tidy moustache, spoke first.  “So, uh, which one of you guys wants to explain what’s goin’ on here?”  His tone was milder than I’d expected.

I looked down and pawed at the sidewalk, searching for a plausible explanation, but before I had a chance to conjure one, my victim piped up.  “I want to press charges!  This guy tried to mug me.”

The cop on my right, an even taller, clean-shaven white guy, couldn’t conceal his incredulity.  “This guy?” he asked, jerking his thumb in my direction.  “This guy tried to mug you?”

My mark nodded vigorously, and proceeded to provide an accurate, detailed description of our encounter.  When he finished, the white cop turned to me.  “Well?  What about it?”

“Um,” I began, but only silence followed.  I tried to start again.  “I, uh . . .”  My voice trailed off to nothing.  My throat was tightening and my legs were going rubbery.  I flinched when the black cop shifted his weight from one foot to the other.

I noticed the Blackberry, still face-down in the muck.  “His phone!” I blurted out.

The officers gave me a moment to continue my thought, but when I failed to elaborate, the white cop prompted me.  “His phone?”

“His phone,” I repeated.  “He was typing on it while he walked, not paying attention.  He bumped into me and dropped it.  When he saw that it was ruined, he went nuts and punched me in the face.”

Bullshit!” roared my victim.

I yelled right back at him.  “You’re a fuckin’ psycho!

The black cop held up his hand, and we took his cue to shut up.  He looked at both of us, and then at his partner.  “So that’s it?” he began.  “Both of you want to stick to those stories?”  When we both nodded, he shrugged.  “OK.  Up against the wall then, both of you.”

Before we could respond, he grabbed my opponent by the elbow and led him to the side of the nearest building.  His partner did the same with me.  “What’s going on?” I asked.  “You’re not gonna arrest me, are you?”

The cop ignored my question.  “You carryin’ a weapon?”  He began to pat me down.  “Anything sharp?  Anything that’s gonna stick me?”  I could hear the other officer putting similar questions to my counterpart.

“No.”

“OK,” he replied, seemingly satisfied that I was unarmed.  As a patrol car pulled up to the curb behind him, he asked, “You got any ID?”

I took my driver’s license out of my wallet and handed it to him.  “Stay here,” he commanded, before joining his partner at the window of the police cruiser.  I took a seat on a stoop.

A million thoughts careened through my head while I waited.  I was pleased that I’d cooked up a believable story, until I convinced myself that an observant bystander was sure to step forward and discredit it.  I resolved to stick to my guns, but wavered when I looked over and saw the distraught expression on my victim’s face.  I tried to think of an adulterated version of the truth to which I might confess, one that might assuage my guilt while still minimizing my chances of facing any sort of real punishment.

I was staring at the ground and pondering all of this when I heard the black cop’s voice reciting the familiar words, “You have the right to remain silent . . .”  My stomach plunged to the floor, and I inhaled deeply and willed myself not to vomit.  I stood up, ready to confess, apologize and throw myself onto the mercy of the NYPD.  It was all I could do to keep from bursting into tears.

It wasn’t until I’d gotten all the way to my feet that I noticed that the cops weren’t addressing me.  They were ten feet away, reading my victim his rights.  I stared, slack-jawed, as they deposited him in the back of the cop car while he cursed all of us with renewed gusto.  Once the car had driven away, the two officers ambled back toward me.  The white cop handed me my license.  “Watch yourself, OK?”

My hands were trembling as I slid my ID back into my pocket.  “You mean I can go?”

“Uh huh.”

A smarter man would have turned on his heel and fled, but all I could do was mutter, “You guys arrested him?” in disbelief.

 “Would you rather we took you in?” the black officer asked.  I wasn’t sure if he was joking.

 “No,” I replied instantly, fighting back a fresh wave of nausea.  “I was just wondering how you figured out that I was telling the truth.”

The white cop shrugged.  “When we ran your names, you came back clean.”  He paused for a second before going on.  “But Mr. Johnston had a warrant.”

“A warrant?  For what?”

 “Unpaid child support.”

His partner chimed in.  “Between the two of you, that makes him the bigger asshole.”

I nodded and mumbled, “Fair enough.”

The officers admonished me to stay out of trouble, and told me to put some ice on my face when I got home.  I thanked them and watch them disappear around the corner before I started wandering toward my apartment, trying to figure out how I was going to explain the shiner beneath my left eye to my kids.


Armed with degrees from Duke University and the University of Michigan Law School, Bob Waldner moved to New York City many years ago to seek his fortune. Not being an adept fortune-seeker, he started writing fiction. His previous work has appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, theEEEL, and Mulberry Fork Review. He continues to practice corporate law in Manhattan, where he lives with his wife, Erinn, and his two daughters, Maureen and Madeleine. You can find him on the web at www.bobwaldnerbooks.com.